“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” – Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride
I try to be clear when I write prose – poetry is not as straightforward by design – but I am running into a problem. I tend to use words assuming readers will apply standard dictionary definitions, but I am finding myself increasingly having to explain at length what I mean by a certain term, so as not to be misinterpreted, as I did in my recent post My (Feminist) Story.
I do understand the difference between connotation and denotation, but it is a pity that many words that usefully describe philosophical or political views have become so skewed from their dictionary definition as to be unusable in practical terms. For example, the words “liberal” and “progressive” are heard more often as epithets than as accurate descriptors of actual policies. Past conservative presidents like Richard Nixon would now be considered liberal, given the positions of those who now describe themselves as conservative.
The word whose misuse most disturbs me is “science.” Science is about data, evidence, observation, reason, leading to conclusions consistent with facts and repeatable by other scientists. In order for papers to be published in scientific journals, they first must be reviewed by peers with knowledge of the field to ensure that the study’s procedures and conclusions meet research standards. Yes, there are studies that later need to be withdrawn when errors are found after publication, but that is rare.
I frequently write comments on news articles about unconventional fossil fuel extraction including “fracking,” renewable energy, and climate change. In my home state of New York, we are in a continuing battle over whether or not high volume hydraulic fracturing will be permitted. The governor has said that science will be the determining factor. The problem is that both sides say they have the science on their side.
The pro-fracking side has industry studies, which are almost never subject to peer review, bold pronouncements from the industry and their allies that fracking is safe, exemptions from key environmental provisions that apply to other industries, gag orders on court settlements of damage claims, and regulatory agencies that are a revolving door to the industry and that use subcontractors that also work with the industry to draft environmental review documents and regulations.
What we on the anti-fracking side have is – well – science. There was a trickle of studies at first, because scientific study takes time with additional time needed for peer review, but there have been more and more studies, especially in the last eighteen months, documenting environmental impacts on air, water, biosphere, climate, and public health. There is a new compendium of research on fracking here. (I can’t resist posting the link to the compendium at every available opportunity.)
Anyone who knows the definition of science should be able to tell which side is using science in their argument. I can understand that some people who are hoping to profit from fracking might delude themselves into believing the industry over the scientists. I don’t understand the press giving equivalency to the remarks of a peer-reviewed independent scientist and an industry spokesperson/propagandist.
The press should be clear with the definition of science. I know it has become common for politicians at all levels of government to say “I am not a scientist” as an excuse not to understand issues such as climate change. Frankly, people do not need to understand all the intricacies of scientific inquiry to believe a strong scientific consensus. They do need to understand the definition of science and to discern what meets the standards of science and what does not.